Saturday, June 27, 2009

A Visit to Iran, a Taste of Persia

My heart is breaking for the people of Iran. A year ago in April 2008, I was part of a delegation of citizen diplomats to Iran sponsored by the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a Quaker group that has sent citizen diplomats to troubled places in the world for years. We spent time in Tehran, Shiraz and Persepolis, Isfahan, and Qom. Our “official” agenda of meeting various dignitaries was thwarted at nearly every step. But our “unofficial” agenda which was to meet people where ever we could, mostly on the street, and show up as supporters of peace and reconciliation, was fully realized. The Iranians we met were hospitable, informed, curious, and welcoming, and able to separate the policies of our then-Bush government from the folks like us, working for understanding between our countries.

The food situation for citizen diplomats in Iran was pretty repetitive. Kebabs and more kebabs. Some better than others. I have been cooking Persian food since the late 60s when I found In My Persian Kitchen and fell in love with combinations of sweet and savory. I was so excited to taste the real thing. What we ate was mostly tourist food which is, by definition, pretty dull. But the exceptions were truly wonderful.

We had a fabulous lunch in Tehran at the Waterfall Restaurant: olives with mint, boiled fava beans with salt, Tomatoes and Eggs, Eggplant with Mint Paste, a large meatball, lamb chops on a spear, various kebabs of lamb, ground beef and chicken, broiled tomatoes, rice with saffron rice on top, and wonderful fresh bread.

And a great lunch in Isfahan at the Bastani Traditional Restaurant: trout, various meat stews featuring quinces, plums, green beans, yellow split peas, okra, eggplants and tomatoes, or herbs along with rice and bread. Fesenjan, the most famous Persian combination of chicken and pomegranate juice, showed up regularly.

To introduce you to Persian food, I’m going to start with a Persian Meat Loaf I’ve been making for years, paired with two dishes which are decidedly not Persian but go with it nicely in terms of flavors and colors: Roasted Potatoes and a Cherry Tomato Mozzarella Salad. You can also try it with recipes from previous blogs: Cucumbers and Yogurt (Morocco), Braised Carrots (South Africa) or Yellow Rice (South Africa). More than anything I want to nourish your understanding of Iran and its rich culture and cuisine by offering you a taste of it. It is amazing food. More next week, including Fesenjan.

Menu 5: Partially Persian

Persian Meat Loaf
I take my own photos, usually immediately before we sit down to eat. They are not styled. This photo, in particular, doesn’t do justice to how delicious this meat loaf actually is. But it is the truth. What you see on this blog is very close to what you will get when you fix a dish.

1½ pounds ground lamb or beef or combination of the two
Note: It would also be possible to use ground turkey.
1 medium onion, grated in the food processor
¼ cup finely chopped green onions
¼ cup finely chopped flat leaf parsley
¼ cup finely chopped celery leaves
1½ teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon pepper
½ teaspoon cinnamon
2 eggs
¼ cup tomato paste
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 slice white bread, milk or water
chopped parsley and sumac to garnish, optional

1. Soak the bread in water or milk while you do the next steps.
2. Use the food processor to grate the onion and then to chop the herbs. No need to wash out in between the two.
3. Put the meat in a large bowl. Add all the ingredients except the bread. Squeeze the bread dry in your hands and tear into pieces. Add to the meat mixture.
4. Mix the ingredients with your hands until the ingredients are thoroughly combined.
5. Place in a loaf pan, or form into a round on a low-sided pan and bake for 1 hour in a 350ºF oven. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and sumac before serving.
Some people I know and love eat this with ketchup or barbeque sauce. Others enjoy it with yogurt.

4 servings
Adapted from Maideh Mazda’s In a Persian Kitchen

Roasted Potatoes

2 pounds small thin-skinned potatoes
3 tablespoons olive oil or smoked olive oil
2 teaspoons kosher salt

1. Cut your potatoes into bite-sized pieces. You might cut them in half or in quarters.
2. Place on a low-sided baking sheet or gratin dish in one layer. Drizzle the olive oil over the potatoes and sprinkle with salt. Mix together with your hands or a large spoon.
3. Turn on the oven to 400ºF and put the potatoes in the oven. No preheating is necessary.
4. Roast until the potatoes are golden brown, 30-45 minutes depending on their size and how cold they are. Stir or shake them once or twice while baking.
5. Serve at once.

If you are making these with the meat loaf, put them in the oven at 350ºF along with the meat loaf and cook until done. They will take a little longer because of the lower temperature. If they finish before the meat loaf, remove them from the oven. Reheat before serving.
Variations: Add 1 or 2 heads of garlic, broken into cloves, unpeeled, to the potatoes after about 15-20 minutes of baking. Or stir in some chopped rosemary at about the same time. Devise your own variations.

4 servings
My own devising, but not original to me

Cherry Tomato, Mozzarella and Corn Salad with Basil
You can vary the amounts of these ingredients according to your taste and what you have on hand.

24 (8 ounces) bocconcini (small fresh mozzarella balls), drained
2 tablespoons O Meyer Lemon Oil
2 tablespoons olive oil and zest of 1 lemon
Kosher salt
Crushed red pepper flakes or smoky hot paprika
Freshly ground pepper
A small amount of fresh lemon juice, optional
1 (10-ounce) basket small cherry tomatoes, preferably in a mixture of colors
1 cup sweet corn kernels, cut and scraped from 1-2 medium ears
About 12 large fresh basil leaves

1. In a large bowl, toss the bocconcini with the oil, 1 teaspoon salt, 1/8 teaspoon red pepper or smoky hot paprika (or to your taste if you like it spicy). Cover and marinate overnight. If you are pressed for time, as I often am, skip the overnight part and proceed with the recipe.
2. Bring the bocconcini to room temperature. Cut the tomatoes in half if they are too large. Gently stir in the tomatoes and corn and adjust the seasoning, adding the lemon juice if you want. The salad can be prepared to this point up to 1 hour ahead.
3. Stack the basil leaves, roll them, cut them into thin strips and scatter the chiffonade over the salad just before serving.

6 servings
Adapted from Carrie Brown’s The Jimtown Store Cookbook

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Lurking Fruits and Veggies

At this very moment, on Tuesday, June 16, 2009, I have a lot of fruits and veggies sitting in my refrigerator. Green onions, two fresh Serrano chiles, Roma tomatoes, jicama, two ears of corn, part of a red onion, papaya, mango, apple, grapefruit, an orange without the zest, mint, basil, cilantro, romaine lettuce, iceberg lettuce, half a red cabbage, a carrot, radishes, an avocado, and yellow patty pan squash. Most were purchased for use in other dishes. Because I always buy a little bit more than I need, just in case, I always have leftovers.

There are at least four ways of dealing with them:

1. I can let them sit in the bottom drawers until they get soft and mushy and I can, without guilt, consign them to the compost bin.

2. I can use them in a reprise of the dish for which they were originally bought.

3. I can practice what my friend Anne in Albuquerque calls “cooking from the fridge.” She and her husband George are experts at it. She looks at what she has and decides how she is going to put the things together—a soup, pasta sauce, stew, omelet or frittata. And she does it brilliantly: she has a wealth of cooking experience and can draw on dishes she has made in the past to inform her.

4. Or I can make myself a cup of tea, sit down in my favorite chair with a couple of the cookbooks I’m currently “testing,” check out the indexes, and see what might work.

The truth is, I do all four.

The compost pile is such a lifesaver sometimes. “Waste not, want not” was a big part of my Mid-western heritage. The compost pile allows me to believe that I’m not really throwing the radishes away; I’m turning them into soil that will help my garden.

The reprise can work, but it is a little boring. I’d rather, if given a choice, make something new.

I do “cook from the fridge” occasionally, especially for lunches on the weekend. But for whatever reason, it is not the option I turn to very often. Somehow a drawer-full of produce doesn’t inspire me to create. I feel as tired as they do. But suddenly a fruit salad springs to mind, maybe with a hint of candied ginger and fresh mint. And maybe a cabbage, radish, and carrot slaw. Or guacamole. Or an iceberg lettuce salad with blue cheese dressing. Anne, are you out there sending me ideas? Maybe there's hope for me after all.

Now the fourth. That’s my favorite. The cup of tea, sitting in my chair with cookbooks on my lap. Let me tell you what I found. A Jicama Slaw recipe in Chocolate for Breakfast that uses the jicama, serrano chiles, red onion, and cilantro. Spicy Corn Frittata with Tomatoes and Scallions in Fresh Food Fast that uses tomatoes, two ears of corn, green onions, and more cilantro. And I remembered the Grilled Asparagus recipe in Bradley Ogden’s Breakfast Lunch and Dinner which I have used with patty pan squash in the past. Pretty good, eh?

I’ll let you know how it goes over the next couple of days.

Using Them Up--So Good

Over the past several days, I've done a good job of cleaning out some of the fruits and vegetables I found lurking in the fridge. It was fun to watch the shelves clear out. Some breathing room for all that remained. And we had some great meals with very little additional shopping.

Jicama Slaw

1 medium-sized jicama, peeled
½ cucumber, peeled, seeded, and chopped in ¼-inch pieces
1 minced jalapeno or Serrano chile, seeds and membranes removed
½ sweet red bell pepper, diced
¼ cup chopped red onion
½ cup finely chopped fresh cilantro
Juice from ½ lemon
1 tablespoon sour cream
½ cup mayonnaise or less if you use more sour cream
1 garlic clove, pressed
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Grate the jicama using a food processor or a box grater. Combine all the vegetables in a large bowl. Add the lemon juice. If you have time, refrigerate the vegetables for 20 minutes to let the flavors mingle.
2. Mix together the sour cream, mayonnaise and the pressed garlic. Stir into the vegetables along with salt and pepper. Taste for seasonings and adjust.
3. Some liquid will gather at the bottom of the bowl so serve with a slotted spoon to avoid a big puddle on the salad plates. I served for lunch with corn chips and a slice of leftover pesto arugula pizza from the night before.

4 servings
Adapted from Barbara Passino’s Chocolate for Breakfast

Grilled Patty Pan Squash with Smoked Bacon and Olive-Caper Vinaigrette

1 pound patty pan squash (5 or 6), cut in half horizontally
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper

Smoked Bacon and Olive-Caper Vinaigrette:
¼ pound smoked bacon, diced
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 shallot, chopped
2 tablespoon capers
¼ cup chopped olives (green or black)
2 tablespoons champagne vinegar
2 tablespoons caper vinegar (from the jar)
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 Roma tomato, peeled, seeded, and chopped
You can also use cherry tomatoes, cut in half

To prepare the squash (and peel the tomato):
1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Drop in the tomato for 10-15 seconds. Remove and peel. Drop in the squash and cook for approximately 3-5 minutes or until barely tender. Remove and place immediately in an ice bath or run under cold water. When cool, lay them out on a clean kitchen towel to dry.
2. Coat the squash lightly with olive oil, salt and pepper. Set aside.

To prepare the vinaigrette:
1. In a skillet, cook the bacon until it is nicely browned.
2. Reduce the heat to low and add the garlic, shallots, capers and olives. Sauté until the garlic is slightly golden brown.
3. Remove from the heat and add the vinegars and olive oil. Set aside.

To finish the dish:
1. Place the squash on the hot grill or a hot grill pan on top of the stove. Turn them until they are warmed through and have nice grill marks. Reheat the vinaigrette.
2. Place the flat bottoms of the squash on a serving platter. Spoon some of the warm vinaigrette over them. Top with the round part of the squash and pour the remaining vinaigrette over all. Garnish with the diced tomatoes.
3. Serve warm or at room temperature.

4-6 servings depending on the number of squashes and your hunger.
Originated with the Grilled Asparagus recipe in Bradley Ogden’s Breakfast Lunch and Dinner

Fruit Salad
We had this for dinner with the Frittata which follows.

You can use most any fruit that you happen to have in your fridge. I used blueberries, one mango, one pink grapefruit, and one orange. I could have added an apple and a giant papaya but thought they didn't quite fit the mood. I served the salad on a couple of small romaine leaves with French Fruit Salad Dressing (see recipe below) on the side.

3 servings or as many as you have fruit
my own devising

French Fruit Salad Dressing

¼ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon paprika
6 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoon lemon juice or juices from the bottom of the fruit bowl
¼ teaspoon dried mustard
1 teaspoon sugar

1. Combine all the ingredients in a small bowl or a small glass jar. Stir them with a small whisk or a fork until they are smooth. Or shake them in the jar with the top on. Taste for seasonings. Add more salt if necessary.
2. Shake or stir before using. I put it in a bowl on the table so that we could serve ourselves.

Makes ½ cup
Adapted from Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker’s 1953 Joy of Cooking

Spicy Corn Frittata with Tomatoes and Scallions

This was a perfectly nice frittata from Fresh Food Fast but not worthy of being a “keeper.” What was truly worthy was the new pan I used for cooking it. Bram, a new store on the Sonoma plaza, specializes in pottery made in Egypt that can be used both on top of the stove with a heat diffuser and in the oven. I had seasoned it earlier in the day so it was set to go.

I sautéed the tomatoes, corn, peppers, green onions, and garlic on the top of the stove on lowish heat. I then mixed the vegetables with 8 eggs and returned it to the burner to cook gently until the eggs started to set on the bottom. And finally I popped it in the oven for 20 minutes to firm up. I used bacon fat to cook the vegetables and to coat the pan before returning the eggs. Not a bit of the frittata stuck to the dish. Just amazing. And it looked really pretty. Prettier than cast iron which is what I would have used in the past. Let me know if you want to see the whole recipe.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Affection for My Cookbooks

I have great affection for my cookbooks for any one of a number of reasons. Here are just a few:

I love to read them and imagine the flavors of the recipes.

I love the personality of the writer that comes through in the books.

I love that they provide me with an incredible wealth of ideas that I could never come up with on my own, especially about ethnic cuisines, like Persian.

I love how beautiful some of them are and I love the gorgeous photographs, misleading as they may be.

I love to “test” a new cookbook to see if the recipes are accurate, well-conceived, and well-written. I watch out for egregious errors: 2T for 2t, for example, can cause serious damage if the ingredient is salt, chipotle chili pepper, or baking powder. But I also watch for excitingly new combinations and methods. The end result of the testing is, of course, a nice meal. Yum. Yum.

I love that they are artifacts and reflections of the culture of which I am a part. Joy of Cooking from the 50s is different from Joy of Cooking in 00s. Food fads come and go like skirt lengths. Now we’re back to fondue.

I love that over time they provide a history of my cooking experiences. Notes I have written in them over the years tell me what I fixed for Thanksgiving dinner in 1994 or how my sons, Franz and Ben, now grown, reacted to a new dish (“Yuck”), or how I changed the recipe to fix it or to suit my taste.

Do you love your cookbooks? I would love to know the ways.

Menu 4: One Plate Meals

My sweetheart, Katherine, is a great fan of one-dish meals. Or rather one-plate meals. I could attribute her liking of these simple meals to the fact that she is the dishwasher in the household and hence her job is made considerably easier with the one plate dinner. Some pots and pans, of course, but not as many, and two plates which can be tucked into the dishwasher without much fuss. More importantly, though, I think that her spirit is nourished by a meal that is less complicated, by one dish with abundant flavor, such as the Bacon-Tomato-Corn Ragout that follows, on a bed of something soothing and comforting, in this case Creamy Polenta. It is straightforward and delicious. And that’s it.

Bacon-Tomato-Corn Ragout with Creamy Polenta

10 thick bacon slices, cut crosswise into ½-inch pieces
Note: Buy the best you can like Niman Ranch or a good local producer
2 tablespoons olive oil or bacon fat
2 medium onions, sliced
Pinch of red pepper flakes or smoky hot paprika
2 cups fresh corn kernels (about 3 ears) or frozen corn if you are desperate
7 Roma tomatoes, peeled if you want, seeded, cored and coarsely chopped
Note: I tried heirloom tomatoes. They were too juicy for this dish. If you want to use them, drain them really well before adding to the ragout.
½ cup chopped fresh basil
½ cup shredded basil for garnish
Fleur de sel or other large grain finishing salt
One recipe of Creamy Polenta (see recipe below)

1. In a medium skillet, cook the bacon pieces over low to medium-low heat, turning to achieve uniform crispness. Transfer to a paper towel to drain.
2. In a large skillet, heat the olive oil or some bacon fat over medium heat. Add the onions and red pepper flakes or paprika, reduce the heat to medium-low and sauté until they are soft and amber, at least 20 minutes.
3. Add the corn, increase the heat to medium, and cook for 5 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes and three-fourths of the bacon pieces and continue to cook, stirring frequently for 5 minutes. Add a little more bacon fat if you think the dish needs it for heightened flavor. Stir in the chopped basil.
4. Reheat the Creamy Polenta and make soft flat mounds in the middle of 4 warm plates. Spoon the ragout over the top. Sprinkle with the shredded basil, the remaining bacon pieces, and a sprinkling of fleur de sel or other salt.

4-5 Servings
Adapted from Sara Perry’s Everything Tastes Better with Bacon

Creamy Polenta

3 cups milk
Note: You can substitute other liquids if you desire.
1 tablespoon butter
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup stone-ground yellow cornmeal

1. Combine the milk, butter, sugar, and salt in a heavy saucepan and heat to a simmer.
2. Slowly add the cornmeal, whisking constantly. Lower the heat and continue stirring with a wooden spoon until the mixture has thickened and leaves the sides of the pan, about 10 minutes.

Note: If you make this ahead, leave it in the saucepan or place in a microwavable bowl. You will need to add more milk or other liquid to loosen it up before serving. Warm it on low heat on the stove or in the microwave. Keep adding liquid and stirring until it is the consistency of mashed potatoes and nice and warm. You may need to add a bit more salt.

6 servings
Adapted from Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins’ The New Basics

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Dinner Parties and Elegant Home Cooking

I love having people over to dinner or lunch. I probably have little eating parties about once a week, often for my friend Sam when our spouses are out of town and regularly for four or six of us. Once the number gets bigger than six, I move into a different mind set that is more like catering than having folks over for dinner. I prefer small.

When I started out, I would spend days getting ready for a graduate student dinner party, finding just the right menu of things that we could afford on my tiny University of California at Berkeley secretary salary and my husband’s graduate student stipend. I wanted to wow and dazzle our friends. But mostly I befuddled them. Aspic, who cares about aspic, even though it took me days of preparation. I wanted effusive compliments for my efforts and invitations to come to their houses for dinner. I got neither—or at least not as many as I wanted.

I had set up a situation in which our friends were intimidated and scared to reciprocate. Who wants that? With a thunk on the side of my head, I realized that I could cook a nice borscht (Coop Low Cost Cookbook) or lentil soup (Pellaprat’s Modern French Culinary Art) with fresh bread, a crisp salad, a brownie (Better Homes and Gardens) for dessert and everyone, including me, had a better time. And so my version of elegant home cooking was born.

On Thursday, dear friends, Rivka and her daughter, Aden, drove up to Sonoma for lunch. We had mushroom pâté (see below) with slices of bread; spicy cauliflower soup (modified from The Art of Simple Food); beet, goat cheese and watercress salad; strawberries and store-bought oatmeal cookies (Whole Foods). It was really tasty and definitely not intimidating. Elegant home cooking. I made the soup and the pâté the day before and did the rest in the morning. It was fun to cook for them, to share a meal, to celebrate Aden’s graduation from Brown, to walk with Rivka to my favorite store on the plaza, Bram. Keeping it easy and enjoying myself.


So far I’ve given you three menus consisting of a main dish, a starch, and vegetable side dishes. If you were cooking one of the menus for a dinner party, you might want to add an appetizer and a dessert which you can purchase or make yourself. If you decide that you are up to making an appetizer, I’m going to give you three: two are truly easy and one is a little more complicated—maybe more the sort you would take to someone’s house if you were assigned the “pre-eating” course with drinks. Except that it is so good that you might want to eat it for dinner.

Apricot Thrones

25 pecan halves
2 ounces cream cheese at room temperature
2 ounces blue cheese
25 dried apricots

1. Preheat the oven or toaster oven to 325ºF. Place the pecans on a baking sheet and toast in the oven until golden brown. Watch carefully. Let them cool.
2. Combine the cheeses and stir until evenly mixed. If the mixture doesn’t get smooth, microwave for 10 seconds to soften slightly and stir again.
3. Scoop up small amount of the cheese mixture and place on top of each apricot. Start with a small amount. You can always add more later. Note: You can use a pastry bag if you are doing a large number of these.
4. Top with a toasted pecan, rounded side up, if you are fussy about it. Transfer the apricots to a serving plate, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate.
Note: The recipe can be completed to this point up to 8 hours before serving.
5. Serve at room temperature.

6-10 servings
Adapted from Hugh Carpenter and Teri Sandison’s Fast Appetizers

Dates Stuffed with Almonds

24 blanched whole almonds, toasted or untoasted
24 medium dates, pitted
12 thin slices bacon, cut in halves

1. Preheat the oven to 350ºF.
2. Stuff an almond inside each date. Wrap each date with bacon and secure with a toothpick crosswise.
3. Bake in the 350ºF oven on a baking sheet for 20-30 minutes or until the bacon is crisp.
If the bacon isn’t browned enough for you, place the dates under a hot broiler for a minute or two, watching them closely.
Note: Can make the day ahead and bake for 20 minutes. Reheat at 350ºF before serving.

8 servings (about 3 per person)
Adapted from Marimar Torres’ The Catalan Country Kitchen

Mushroom Pâté

½ ounce dried porcini mushrooms
1 cup boiling water
¼ cup butter (½ stick)
1 pound fresh cremini mushrooms, thinly sliced, tough stems discarded
1 garlic clove, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons oyster sauce
½ teaspoon hot sauce
½ teaspoon sugar
6 ounces cream cheese
Salt and pepper
¼ cup chopped fresh chives, parsley or cilantro or a mixture
Edible flowers, like society garlic flowers, optional
Crackers, thinly sliced French bread, or crostini

1. Place the dried mushrooms in a small bowl and cover with 1 cup boiling water. Let sit for 30 minutes. Remove the mushrooms from the soaking liquid. Pour the liquid through a coffee filter or a double layer of paper towels in a sieve (to catch the dirt from the dried mushrooms). Reserve both the mushrooms and the water.
2. Heat a 12-inch sauté pan over high heat. Add the butter and when it begins to brown, add the softened dried mushrooms, the fresh mushrooms, and garlic. Sauté until the mushrooms begin to wilt and squeak, about 5 minutes.
3. Add the reserved mushroom water, oyster sauce, hot sauce, and sugar. Cook over high heat until all the moisture disappears. Remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature.
4. Transfer the mixture to a food processor and process until smooth. Cut the cream cheese into bits and add it to the mushroom mixture along with 2-3 tablespoons of the herbs. Process until very smooth, adding salt and pepper to taste.
5. Line the bottom of a 6½ or 7-inch springform pan with parchment paper and butter the sides.
6. Transfer the pâté to the prepared pan, and press a layer of plastic wrap over the surface. Refrigerate.
Note: You can also put the pâté in a pretty bowl.
7. To serve, run a knife around the edge of the pan, remove the sides and bottom of the springform pan. Peel off the parchment paper by flipping the pâté on to your hand, paper side up. Then flip the pâté right side up onto a flat serving plate. Decorate with the reserved herbs and the flowers. Serve chilled or at room temperature with crackers, baguette slices, or crostini.

Serves 6-12
Adapted from Hugh Carpenter and Teri Sandison’s Fast Appetizers